Presidential Elections: “If Voting Were Important”
Although we Americans like to think that our presidential elections are important events, even perhaps the most important democratic political events in our political order, it is difficult to make that case. Below is a list of those presidential elections in my lifetime that I would rank as meaningless from the viewpoint of facilitating political change. That is, in these presidential elections little or nothing changed and/or the established political class – which of course encompasses the ruling cliques of both political parties – was further entrenched or fortified. These elections are:
1956, 1964, 1968, 1972, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2004, 2012, and probably 2016 should Clingon II be elected, as seems certain.
In other words, in 12 of the 15 presidential elections that have occurred in my lifetime, nothing or very little changed or the established political class used the election to fortify its power.
So why is it that we Americans like to think that our presidential elections are important political events? One could say that even though these elections were in fact as I describe them, they were still important political events not because of the change they facilitated but, rather, because of the change they prevented. These elections have become, with a few exceptions, another way for the established political class to fortify the status quo.
This phenomenon is visible, say, in the election of 1968, when Richard Nixon was elected president and continued waging war in Southeast Asia for four more years, pretty much as LBJ had been waging it previously. It is also visible even in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected president and the Democrats pretty much folded up their tents in order to restore the political order that had been temporarily short circuited by the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976. The fabled “Reagan Revolution” was really little more than a “Reagan Restoration.”
The myth though about our presidential elections being important harbingers of change, change that reflects the wishes and desires of the people, is an all-important myth. It is how we convince ourselves that we live in a democracy, where politics reflects the will of the people and not the will of the elected few who control the levers of power. Mark Twain, who once said, “If voting were important, they wouldn’t let us do it,” had it partly right. For although voting could be important, it isn’t, which is why they let us do it.